Why Sports History Is American History
Professor of African American Studies and History
During a forty year career of teaching African-American and American History, I have often used examples from sports to explain key events in American history, or to explore how people in American society have grappled with and racial, ethnic and regional differences in our very diverse nation Whether it is assigning a book on Jack Johnson so explain the nationalization of white supremacy during the Jim Crow Era, to using the movie “Cinderella Man” ( on heavyweight champion James Braddock who was living on relief a year before he won the title) to show how much American families were under stress during the great Depression, to examining the experience of Muhammed Ali to show how American society was divided during the Vietnam War, I have found sports history to be a tremendously valuable tool to bring American history to life
This is not just because, like some of my students, I am a sports fan and (former) competitive athlete. It is because professional and college sports, from the late 19th Century to the present have served as one of the nation’s most powerful community building institutions, helping define American identity, on the grass roots, level as powerfully as our political system, our broadcast media, or Hollywood film. In huge and diverse nation experiencing waves of immigration, struggling with bitter racial divisions, and undergoing a pace of economic change unmatched by any society in the world, sports have provided many Americans with a visceral connection to America’s lived traditions and cultural values while providing them with a much needed escape from the hardships of their daily lives.
Take an event like the Super Bowl. If you had a friend visiting from another country, what better way to give a four hour primer on American culture than watching that game and the spectacle surrounding it. Here are classic themes in American civilization on display in dramatic form- the creative tension between individual striving and team destiny, the fascination with violence and courage in the face of adversity; the glorification of the citizen as consumer, the love of gimmicks and new technologies which highlight the nation’s wealth, and less felicitously, the use of scantily clad women ( in this case cheerleaders) to market products, and the racial divisions symbolized by the spectacle of an almost all white stadium audience watching almost black teams play a dangerous and violent game. This is American society on display, with all its grandeur, power and imperfections, broadcast in a way that commands the attention of almost every person in the nation. Is this any less worthy of historical investigation than Congressional debates over health care reform or of policies of Wall Street financial firms that helped destabilize the economy. The Super Bowl, like many sports events throughout our history, provides important insights into how we think and how we live, how we entertain ourselves, and how we gather together to celebrate and affirm who we are.
In the short essay that follows, I would like to offer some reflections on what I think are three key dimensions of sports in American history- its role in socializing and Americanizing immigrants and their children; its role in marginalizing African Americans in the Jim Crow Era, and then giving Blacks a platform from which to challenge their subordination, and its shattering of gender norms on the field without challenging the eroticization of women in the sports marketplace. To make the discussion more accessible, I will combining historical analysis with reflections on some of my own experiences as and athlete, coach, parent and sports fan
The role of sports in Americanizing immigrants has been written about extensively by historians and journalists. Professional boxing and baseball, both of which achieved heightened popularity at the dawn of the 20th Century, became important vehicles by which successful waves of immigrants marked their progress in American society. The hero making machinery of these two sports, enhanced first by mass circulating newspapers, then by radio, allowed for individuals from immigrant backgrounds to achieve the status of popular culture icons even while the majority of their ethnic cohorts struggled with poverty and marginality. For European immigrants, even those from Eastern and Southern Europe, sports, pervaded with an ethos of “fair play” and open competition, proved far more accessible to talented immigrant youth than the nation’s banks, corporations and universities where discrimination was often masked behind “gentleman’s agreements,” and where progress in breaking barriers was often painfully slow. Figures like boxers John O Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Benny Leonard and Rocky Marciano and baseball players like Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg became symbolic representatives of the potential of Irish, Italian and Jewish Americans to win success and acceptance in a nation that had often looked upon their presence with suspicion.. And this filtered down to the neighborhood level where the American born children of immigrants seized upon sports as a surefire way of affirming their American identities and opening up opportunities for economic and educational success
The belief in sports as a true bastion of “democracy” was alive and well in the Brooklyn neighborhood I grew up in during the 1950’s- Crown Heights. In a community where 95% of the people were Jewish and Italian ( I didn’t meet a white Protestant until I was 8 years old!) and where the older generation spoke little or no English, sports assumed almost religious significance among English speaking boys and men. The men of my father’s generation not only discussed sports constantly, on street corners, in bars and at the dinner table, they bet on sports events, ranging from horse racing to boxing, to basketball, through the bookie who was a fixture outside the corner candy store. As for the boys I grew up, sports totally dominated our horizons.We fanatically followed the three New York baseball teams, the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants and tried to model ourselves on the three centerfielders on those teams, Willie Mays, Duke Snider and Mickey Mantle.When we reached our teens, we practiced basketball even more, aware that many older guys in our neighborhood were playing on high school teams and some had gotten scholarships to play in college. We watched Sunday pro football and the Friday night fights, practicing the moves we saw there in the sometimes brutal fights we had in alleys and occasionally in school, and in equally brutal sandlot football games. But the thing I most remember about all of the games watched and played was the sense that America was ours for the conquering; that if we got good enough at our sport, there was no height to which we couldn’t ascend because people named Gordon and Koufax and Furillo and Rizzuto and Berra were at the pinnacle of professional sports and people just like them were stars at every Brooklyn high school. Did we think this way about Presidents and Senators, Mayors and members of Congress? I doubt it. None of us knew anyone who had succeeded in politics or even had run for office. But if anyone has asked us did we believe in American Democracy, all of us would have said “yes” without the slightest hesitation and we would have pointed to sports as proof that America was the land of opportunity for people just like us.
If anyone had asked us, we would probably have said, looking at the teams and athletes we rooted for, that American Democracy applied to Blacks as much as it did to Jews and Italians. Living seven blocks from Ebbets Field, and coming of age a full ten years after the Dodgers broke major league baseball’s color line, we marveled at the exploits of Dodger stars Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, and despite hating the Giants, all tried to make basket catches in the style of Willie Mays. Of equal significance to the basketball fanatics among us,, many of the great high school players in Brooklyn in that era were Black, as were some of the participants in our schoolyard games, and we looked on NBA players like Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell as models for our developing games, which we hoped would take us to college stardom.
But as I would learn much later,, meritocracy and fair play were concepts which were more exceptions than the rule for African Americans for most of American history. During the first half of the Twentieth Century, African Americans, no matter their talent level, were barred from participating in most professional sports leagues, and were unable to play on most college and recreational teams. Whereas children of European immigrants, when they Americanized, were welcomed in virtually all spheres of American sports, African Americans were viewed as a stigmatized lower caste whose very presence would lower the prestige of any team they were on.. Nowhere was this caste system more visible than in major league baseball, which drew the color line from the first “World Series” in 1903 till Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. This was not because African Americans didn’t play baseball at the highest level, or because white players and coaches weren’t aware of their talent. At the turn of the century, baseball was the single most popular sport in Black communities throughout the nation, and the pool of Black talent was deep and strong. The best white major leaguers knew this because they competed against the best Black players in winter leagues in Cuba, where the Black players more than held their own, and in sandlot games against black teams played in the off season. You cannot find a clearer example than major baseball of how racial segregation violated every principle of equal opportunity and fair play which Americans claim to cherish. Unlike European immigrants who were encouraged to think that they could go as far in America as their talents and effort would take them, Blacks were told that their racial identity would always trump their talents, and that no matter how hard they worked they would always be treated as inferiors. To the shame of all who love the purity of athletic competition, Sports in America were used to convey that awful message.
Fortunately, tensions between idealistic visions of American Democracy and the ugly reality of Color Caste could not be contained forever and over time, sports would become an importan arena in which this caste segregation was subverted. In the 1930’s, boxing and track and field, two sports in which segregation was never as complete as it was in baseball, produced two Black athletes who became genuine American sports heroes, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. In each instance, the moment of their coronation was a competition in which they beat athletes from an ascendant Nazi Germany, whose racial theories marked stigmatized much of America’s immigrant population as racial inferiors. Because of this, Jesse Owens victories at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Joe Louis 1938 victory over Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium, marked the first time in American history that large numbers of white Americans perceived a Black athlete as fighting for them, and joyously celebrated their victory. And it was these moments which helped set the stage for the gradual steps taken by coaches at schools like NYU and UCLA and City College of New York to recruit black players for their football and basketball teams, and for the much bigger step taken by Branch Rickey to integrate major league baseball.
But the one thing to keep in mind, when charting the gradual integration of college and professional sports was that it was changes in the political climate in the nation and the world that cracked open segregated sports, not some miraculous growth in the talent level of black players. All throughout the 1930’s and into the 1940’s, before integration took place, the best white major league baseball players and the best white professional basketball players were competing against Black players, usually on all Black teams, and often losing! In the early 1930’s, the legendary New York Celtics basketball team, which was all white, played many games against the Harlem Renaissance Five, who were all black, and lost as many games as they won. Later in the decade, the Harlem Globetrotters, whose skill level was as impressive as their comedy, won the majority of their games against professional teams. The same thing was true in contests between barnstorming groups of major league players and Black teams like the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. Satchel Paige was a legendary figure among white major leaguers well before he was signed to play for the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and there wasn’t a white player who competed against him who didn’t think that if the color line broke, he would be an instant star.
As historians, there is no better way to teach our students about the creation and destruction of the color line in 20th Century America than to draw examples from the history of race in sports, a history which is now richly documented in biographies, historical works, novels and documentary film,
The history of how gender barriers were broken in sports follows a somewhat different trajectory than the breaking of racial barriers. For women, the story is not about how female sports talent was kept out of competition, it is of a powerful, overarching gender system that kept female sports talent from developing on the grounds that such talent would masculinize women. For most of the twentieth century, women were socialized, in families, schools, and the media to think that competitive sports were a male domain, and were given few opportunities to develop athletic talent. It was not until the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and the passage of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that women as an organized political force, began to define sports participation as a women’s rights issue and insist that girls have the same opportunity to participate in sports as boys. And it is through protests, and legal challenges, and struggles fought by women and men in families and communities that girls and women’s sports have expanded to become an integral part of organized athletics from the school to the university level as well as in neighborhood and recreational leagues.
How dramatic, and how recent this change is can be demonstrated by what took place within my own family. All my life, I was a competitive athlete, and I ended up as captain of my high school and college tennis teams. By contrast, my wife Liz, who is every bit as good an athlete as I am, never had a chance to play organized sports in school. She became an expert skier and swimmer, but when it came to school, the only team available was field hockey, so she put her energies into cheerleading, where her cartwheels and spins got her made captain of the squad. When Liz and I got married, we both, as committed feminists, agreed that if we had a daughter, I should teach her everything I knew about sports, so when my daughter Sara was born in 1977, I did exactly that. I started teaching her to throw hit and catch from the time she was 2 years old and when she was five, I took her down to the church
across the street and signed her up for baseball. When it became clear to everyone who watched her, that she could throw hit and catch as well as any boy, a whole world opened up, not only for Sara, but for other girls in the neighborhood. Sara ended up playing baseball, basketball and soccer on mostly boys teams, first in our neighborhood, then on teams that travelled around Brooklyn, sometimes being cheered, sometimes provoking protests. When she was ten, the boys CYO team she played on won the Brooklyn CYO championship with her as the starting off guard, and the coaches secretly got together, the next season, to ban girls from boys basketball. By going to the papers, we overturned the ban. But irrespective of Sara’s situation, girls sports in Brooklyn was a juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped. By the time Sara was 14, girls softball, basketball and soccer leagues had sprung up all over Brooklyn, and girls now had the choice of either playing with boys, or playing on all girls team. And school and college sports kept pace. By the time
Sara was applying to college, most American colleges, thanks to Title IX challenges and lawsuits, had as many girls teams as boys teams and Sara had a choice of playing college basketball, softball or tennis. When she chose tennis and ended up, like her dad, as the captain of her college tennis team, I realized history had come full circle and something of a revolution had taken place in sports and gender. Now a young girl growing up has almost as many sports opportunities as a young boy, and sees models of women athletes all around her, in her school and her neighborhood and on television.
But as with race and sports, it would be too soon to declare the revolution is over and we can declare victory. While sports and fitness have become women’s domains to a degree unimaginable to past generations, the most popular and highly publicized professional sports, football, baseball and basketball, remain overwhelmingly male domains where women are often presented as prizes of competition, the bare midriffs and cleavage of the cheerleaders reminders of the reward that awaits the male athlete when his athletic labors are over. Today, in American sports, the woman as eroticized object coexists with the image of woman as ferocious competitor, creating a tension which some might find exciting, but others confusing and demoralizing. Nowhere is this polarity dramatized more than in the “Swimsuit Issue” of Sports Illustrated, the single most popular issue of any magazine published in the United States, where women are marketed as sex objects for a predominantly male readership. That there is nothing comparable for women goes without saying. What is a young girl to think? For whom is she developing her physical talents? And to what end? That her athletic talents are now respected is gratifying, but when it comes to men and sports, is it still all about sex? Where is real equality? Or is that an illusion too?
These questions, as disturbing as they might be, remind us of the excitement that awaits us, as teachers, as we use sports to reveal important themes in American history and culture. There is no point of entry into American culture and civilization that will tell us more about how our fellow citizens think and live and imagine themselves than sports, and we now have great books and films as sources to reveal those mysteries. Hopefully, the articles to follow will serve as resources for you in your teaching, and incentives for future research. Let the games begin!
February 16, 2010